This is pretty exciting. For quite some time there has been an ongoing archaeological excavation in Trondheim, north of the public library in the city centre. Excavations began as a routine check of the area due to plans for a new building on the site. A few days ago, the main city newspaper of Trondheim, Adresseavisa, issued a video report from the dig where they interviewed project leader Anna Petersén. The archaeologists have found a graveyard and the remains of a church altar, most likely from the early part of the eleventh century. The preliminary conclusion is that this is the Church of Saint Clement, and this is where the excitement really kicks in - at least for me.
The Church of Saint Clement was namely the first church in which the body of Olaf Haraldsson was placed after it was exhumed on August 3, 1031. The exhumation was commissioned by Grimkell, an Englishman who was the bishop of Trondheim and who had followed Olaf Haraldsson to Norway. According to skaldic poems written within twelve years of the exhumation, the hairs and nails on the dead king were seen to have continued to grow in death. This, together reports of healings performed on the site, was seen as a sign of Olaf's holiness, and Grimkell declared Olaf to be a saint and had the body translated to the Church of Saint Clement. This was at a point in history when bishops had the authority to proclaim sainthood for dead people. Olaf's body was enshrined in the church and this shrine soon became a site of pilgrimage, and both the enshrinement and the pilgrims are attested to by skaldic poems written before 1043, namely Glælognskvida (c.1032) by Thorarin Loftunga and Erfidrápa (c.1042) by Sigvat Tordsson. A few decades later, the body of Saint Olaf was later moved to the Church of Christ which was built on the site where Olaf was belived to have been buried before his enshrinement in the Church of Saint Clement. The new church, situated where the current cathedral of Trondheim is placed, was commissioned by Olaf Kyrre (ruled 1067-93).
It has long been speculated about where the Church of Saint Clement was to be found, and until the current find it was believed to be somewhere else. Naturally, one always has to be cautious when making claims about the identity of medieval ruins, but here there is a strong likelihood that the identification is correct.
A video and a description of the find in English can be found here:
Bishop Grimkell washes the exhumed body of Olaf Haraldsson
Detail from an altar front, Trondheim, early 14th century
A few final remarks to those of you who have by now read the article:
- The remark that the church was "a wooden stave church" is a pleonasm. All stave churches were made of timber.
- That the find gives credibility to saga accounts is less important than one might think. Snorri Sturlusson is not the first to have written about this, and his sources were in fact the two skaldic poems mentioned above. That these poems, composed so close to the events themselves and known through written records that Snorri relied on, were right about the translation and the enshrinement should not surprise anyone.
- That Olaf was "declared a saint by popular acclaim" might be something Snorri claims, but this is very unlikely to be true. There might have been some knowledge of the Christian concept of sanctity among the Norwegian Christians, but for there to have been commissioned an exhumation of the body, and for the king to have been declared a saint, it was necessary to have episcopal authority at the very least. Nothing of the story as it is found in the early skaldic poems suggests that the first cult of Olaf was a popular cult that was later embraced by the church. On the contrary, the accounts present the story as something entirely orchestrated by the ecclesiastical power, which at that time was Bishop Grimkell. The people did probably embrace the cult quickly, but it was due to Grimkell it all started.